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Elder vs. Elderly: Wisdom vs. Learning

11/01/2014 1 comment

The young Hebrew professor responded to my quote from another scholar, “He used to be a good scholar, but he has become senile.”

During my postgraduate studies in the Hebrew language at The University of Texas at Austin, I was reading some of the insights of W. F. Albright. Albright had at least four Doctorate degrees and had moved from being a liberal Bible scholar to understanding the bigger picture of biblical history. In his later years he had come to conclusions that agreed with several conservative scholars. He wasn’t addicted to the conclusions of his early years.

When I quoted one of Albright’s insights in a Hebrew History class, the young professor said, “W. F. Albright is senile. He has lost his edge in scholarship.” It’s typical of young scholars to disregard seasoned scholars just like teens often disregard adults. “After all,” they seem to think, “How could they know anything about what I’m learning today? They’re just behind the times.” Young people are usually addicted to their own point of view. I know I was.

It becomes clear why the biblical tradition sees elders as the ones we should look to for wisdom. But, at the same time we must realize that there’s a difference between being an elder and being elderly. Many elderly people have spent their lives resisting new ideas and remaining loyal to what they were taught as children. They are in fact behind the times. It’s amazing how quickly we dismiss any idea that contradicts what we already believe.

It’s like my friend who said, “If I believe you, I’ll have to admit I’ve been wrong all these years.” That was his response when I spoke to him about the Holy Spirit. I wondered if he really heard what he just said. It’s like he was addicted to his belief system and couldn’t break free to consider a new idea even when it looked right. But he’s not alone. I’ve also caught myself holding on to a belief system long after evidence pointed another direction.

This puts us all in a position of needing discernment. How can I tell whether a new idea is worth considering or not? How can I know I’m not just holding on to my childhood training? Apart from discernment, I can’t know. The problem is that addictions, anxiety and prejudice block discernment. If a new idea looks like it might be worth considering, I know I might be rejected by my peers if I consider it. This anxiety is the motor that runs prejudice.

My respect for the elderly men who were appointed elders in my church was shattered when I heard one of them say, “I will stake my eternal salvation on this interpretation of that verse.” It was a verse that had four different interpretations offered by leaders in our denomination. I knew I could never stake my eternal salvation on a particular interpretation of any verse. There’s too much room for human error. Eternal life is secured by Jesus alone.

I remember walking home from the meeting that night, weeping over the heart condition of the one who’d made that statement. It was painful to embrace the fact that an elder, whom I respected and loved, would make a statement like that. He was addicted to a belief system based on a human understanding of one verse. I knew I could no longer be a part of that camp. I had to move on in face of the rejection I knew was coming.

The journey to wisdom doesn’t end when you graduate from high school or college. It doesn’t end when you become a Christian or when you have a new experience of the goodness of God. There’s always more about life than what you’ve already experienced, and each new experience has the potential to teach me something I didn’t know. It might even cause you to see the trivial nature of something you believed to be ultimate truth. When we stop learning, we die.

Looking forward,
Fount Shults, President, On Word Ministries http://www.onword.org

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